Just for kicks, let’s rewind the clock to a week ago.
Last Wednesday morning, Iran had just released the U.S. sailors and ships it had seized after those boats had strayed into Iran’s territorial waters. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts had just suggested that some Very Serious People, particularly MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, had wildly overreacted during the less than 24 hours of their captivity.
It is safe to say that Scarborough did not take too kindly to my criticism:
It is possible that I had some fun at Scarborough’s expense the next day.
So how does this all look a week later? Well, it looks pretty silly. It turns out that, unbeknownst to Scarborough or me, the Obama administration was close to finishing 14-month-long negotiations for the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian as well as a few other Americans being held hostage.
Scarborough, like many conservatives, responded to this news by raising the moral hazard problem. According to this logic, negotiating with hostage-takers simply encourages more hostage-taking. Except that there’s a small anecdote in Peter Baker and David Sanger’s New York Times article about these negotiations that complicates the moral-hazard narrative:
In December, Iran arrested Matthew Trevithick, 30, an American studying Farsi in Tehran. With a deal nearly at hand, the Americans told the Iranians that they expected his release, but would not include him in their talks because they feared Tehran would then demand the release of more Iranians.
Then last Tuesday, just as the nuclear and prisoner deals were heading to finality, two United States Navy patrol boats drifted into Iranian waters and 10 sailors were detained, in what an American official called “a perfect storm.” American officials warned that, as a political matter, the president would not be able to lift sanctions on Iran if the sailors were still in custody.
Mr. Kerry called Mr. Zarif repeatedly, and the sailors were released the next morning, which the Americans took as a sign that Iran really wanted to conclude both deals.
If U.S. willingness to negotiate had really signaled weakness to Iran’s regime, then one would have expected Tehran to have used both of these incidents as a means to extract further concessions from the Obama administration. That did not happen. And the Iranians also failed to persuade the United States to let Rezaian leave at the last minute without his wife and mother.
Now would normally be the time at Spoiler Alerts to do the Pundit Victory Lap. The thing is, the urbane, rational thinker in me still remembers something I learned last fall at my conference on foreign policy and the 2016 presidential campaign:
Campaigns treat foreign policy issues as unexploded landmines. Listening to past and current campaign operatives, it was striking how much they talked about national security and foreign policy questions with extreme wariness. To them, the global situation is so fluid that they fear any comment on a current situation could come back to haunt them later in the campaign. Comparatively speaking, the campaign people thought of economic issues as much more stable.
This maxim holds not only for campaigns, but for those who write about American foreign policy for a living. The truth of the matter is that although the Obama administration had a good week in negotiating with Iran, that does not augur future success. Indeed, as Borzou Daragahi noted at BuzzFeed, all of the machinations over the past week demonstrate the power of Iran’s hardline establishment:
The message in all three incidents — directed at both a domestic and international audience — is not so much that the hardliners close to the Revolutionary Guard will sabotage the nuclear deal or torpedo efforts to improve Iran’s ties to the West and the rest of the world. It is that they easily could if they wanted, and moderates like Rouhani and Zarif may be powerless to stop them.
Zarif may earn public plaudits for his diplomatic successes and Rouhani’s faction may win more votes, but the sometimes shadowy hardliners close to the country’s deep state continue to drive Iran’s security and diplomatic agenda.
Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal’s Aresu Eqbali and Asa Fitch note, Iran’s hardline-dominated institutions are taking steps to ensure that reformists cannot acquire more influence through the ballot box:
Days after Iran secured relief from economic sanctions under a contentious nuclear deal, the country’s powerful hard-liners are moving to sideline more moderate leaders who stand to gain from a historic opening with the West.
Almost two-thirds of the 12,000 candidates who applied to run in next month’s parliamentary elections were either disqualified by Iran’s Guardian Council or withdrew. …
Hossein Marashi, an official with a reformist political council, said on Monday that only 30 out of 3,000 reformist candidates had been approved.
Of course, even talking about “reformists” and “hardliners” simplifies the situation in Iran. It’s not as though Mohammad Javad Zarif is happy right now:
So no, no pundit victory lap today. The larger nature of the enduring rivalry between the United States and Iran is impossible to ignore, as is the nature of the Iranian regime. It’s possible that Scarborough and other conservative critics might be right in the future, which is why future U.S. negotiations with Iran have to be handled very carefully.
Of course, it is also possible that the conservative criticism of the Iran negotiations will prove to be wrong. And as a general rule, it would be nice if those who talk about such matters acknowledge their own fallibility from time to time. That should be the main takeaway point from the past week.